by Bill Bryant
This is a happy time for randonneurs around the world --- it's a PBP year! If you would like to join the festivities, then completing the series of four qualifying brevets will be your goal this spring. With successful 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k brevets under your belt, you can fill out your PBP application and send it to RUSA HQ for processing. (For PBP entry procedures see the May 2002 issue of American Randonneur.)
After having completed the 600k, you will stare at the PBP application form (in the May 2003 newsletter) and think "Okay, now what?" You will be faced with a very important decision: What start time to take? Think this over very carefully since it cannot be changed once you submit it. The host organization, Audax Club Parisien (ACP), is very strict about this and doesn't tolerate any requests for changes, so once you make up your mind you have to live with it. One reason has to do with the plastic card each rider is issued. It has a magnetic strip on it, just like a credit card. That strip holds your personal PBP identity on it including your name, number, country of origin, age, type of bike, gender and start time. These cards are processed by a third party for the ACP. The facility that handles these cards, is not at the PBP rider check in area. To reprocess the information on the card is a major ordeal. So, changing your start time at PBP is simply not allowed.
Following the format of the most recent PBP events, there are three main starting times. First off are the speedsters. They leave at 20:00 on Monday and have a maximum of 80 hours to get the job done. If you look at PBP as a race instead of a randonnée, then this is your group. If it took you less than 29 hours to complete your 600k, then you will want to take this start. In 1999, 781 fast riders left at 20:00 and 80% of them finished the ride successfully. Rather than having control opening times as there are for the slower groups, you have open road ahead of you and nothing to slow you down except stop signs, your cycling ability, and, of course, signing in at each control.
The next group comes two hours later Monday evening at 22:00. This is the popular 90-hour group, which allows the most amount of time to complete the ride. In 1999, 2286 randonneurs started in this enormous mob. (Actually, there are three big waves sent off at 15-minute intervals. Your personal starting time is adjusted by the event's computer to reflect which wave you are in. Thus, there isn't a time handicap if you're in one of the later waves. Your place in line at the start for Monday evening check-in will determine your wave; it's "first-come, first-served" so if you want the first wave, get there early.) At the last PBP there was an 85% success rate among the 90-hour group. If your 600k took much longer than 36-37 hours, you might want to train differently to improve your speed and try PBP another year. Obviously you have a few more hours of riding time to reach the 40-hour limit for the first half, but practical experience has shown that many riders taking 37-40 hours often have great difficulty finishing PBP. There are certainly exceptions to this generalization, but it still holds true much of the time. For example, due to the night starting time and the lines at controls, many 90-hour riders find that the first half of PBP is noticeably slower than their 600k qualifying brevet time. On the trip back to Paris, they get 50 hours, not the 40 they had outbound, so there is a more of a time cushion to work with. But by then much greater fatigue sets in and one's average pace drops further, so making the controls in time is still pretty tough for the slowest randonneurs. At the least, they won't be able to sleep much, if any, during PBP unless they are well ahead of each control's closing time. The minimum allowable time for this group is 50 hours, so if you are a very fast rider you may have to wait for the controls to open, or you can get a lot of sleep along the way.
After the two groups on Monday evening comes the 84-hour group, which starts at 5am on Tuesday morning. In 1999 there were 506 randonneurs at this start, of whom 82% earned their finisher's medal. Probably a 600k time of 31-32 hours or less would a good marker if you are thinking of starting Tuesday morning.
There are actually two other start groups to know about, for tandems and recumbents. These are gathered into either of two starting groups for "special machines". Those in the 90-hour group will leave at 21:45, or 15 minutes ahead of the first wave of that group's solo bike riders. Early the next morning, at 4:45am Tuesday, the tandems and `bents of the 84-hour group are started together in a similar fashion. If you are very fast, take the 90-hour start at 21:45 PM Monday. Unlike the Tuesday start with a minimum time limitation of 44 hours, the Monday start offers an "open road" to those who make time to the early controls, or even set a course record. Like the 80-hour riders, you'll have a better time getting through the control lin es since you'll be the next group starting after them. On the other hand, the 84-hour "special machines" will have an easier time dealing with the controls getting to Brest than the average 90-hour "specials" since they end up being among the crush of solo riders. Considerations for speedy riders aside, for the average recumbent or tandem, their times on the brevets will be a good indication as to which starting group to choose. It would probably be unwise for a "special" who took 32 hours or longer on their 600k to sign up for the 84-hour group.
The reason I bring up the finishing rates for each starting time is to show that the group with the most time seems to have the best chance of success, and that with the least does the worst. There are varied reasons for this, such as some 80-hour group speedsters not meeting personal time goals and deciding to quit. More members of this group have personal support cars too and it is easier to give up knowing one has a ride back to the start if things aren't going according to plan. On the other hand, most 90-hour riders are less competitive than their faster brethren and will strive to finish no matter what. Still, in some ways it seems counter-intuitive; one would think the fastest, better-trained cyclist would do better than the slower riders. But time after time the best completion rate comes from the 90-hour group. I think a more relaxed, touring attitude that is a good way to surmount the various challenges encountered during four days and nights of difficult cycling on foreign roads. Riders who falter and quit may be allowing sleep deprivation to cloud their judgement. In many cases riders have found that after a restorative sleep break, they still have time to finish the ride. RUSA hopes riders who are thinking of quitting, take a break, reconsider the situation, and continue on in an effort to help improve our collective finishing rate. They might be disap- pointed about not meeting personal time goals but they can be very proud they helped the US in the international rankings. Remember, the first American and the last earn exactly the same amount of PBP finisher's points. ( Actually, randonneurs earn 12 points while randonneuses earn 18 so things would be different if our first and last riders were of different genders.)
Overall, if this will be your first 1200k randonnée you might do well to consider taking the 22:00 start. You will have many challenges to deal with that you will not have encountered in the brevets and at PBP having additional time is like having extra money in the bank. For one thing, you can probably get more sleep along the way and this means enjoying the ride more. For another, you could have more time to deal with unexpected problems or getting lost. Or, if your digestion and/or energy suffers unduly at some point (and it likely will), you'll have more recovery time to get it back to normal. On the other hand, riders with fewer hours have to do everything correctly since they have less time to untangle difficulties. Also, though the three events in the 1990s have been relatively dry, many editions of PBP have seen lots of rain and wind. Long periods of inclement weather always slow riders of any ability---better to have the most time in hand if the weather is poor. Statisti- cally, we're probably due for a rainy PBP. However, this won't be known until the event itself, and long after you send in your application. Finally, lacking the bright full moon of 1999, the 2003 event will be worse in this regard. All riders slow down at night, and the darker it is, the slower their speed will be, especially when descending.
Still, there are good reasons to think about other start options, especially if you already have a successful 1200k to your credit or are a fast randonneur. For one, beginning a 1200-kilometer bike ride at 22:00 is pretty ghastly to most folks unless they happen to be "night owls." This starting group will have more night riding than the 84-hour group. For a reasonably fit randonneur, the 84-hour start has at most three nights, while for the vast majority of 90-hour riders it has four. This differ- ence is much worse to experience than just reading about it. Mere words can't do justice to the profound fatigue that the fourth night brings. Or, if you are a swift randonneur, starting with the 80-hour group means you will have a somewhat easier time getting through food lines at most controls. On the other hand, if you are in the crush of 90-hour riders, then lines tend to be longer, especially in the first two-thirds of the event. Most 84-hour starters don't catch the bulk of the 90-hour group until Carhaix or Brest, so they generally have shorter lines the first day. (The cyclists are more spread out on the return trip, especially after the second time through Loudeac, and food lines tend to move faster than during the first part of the ride.)
I strongly urge all prospective PBP riders to read past articles from American Randonneur. "The 90-Hour Start" by Johnny Bertrand (May 1999) and "Five Reasons to Take the 84-Hour Start" by Charles Lamb (February 1999) both offer excellent advice from two very experienced PBP anciens on this vital topic. If you are a speedy randonneur, Scott Dickson's "At the Front of the 80-Hour Group" (November 1999) will be very instructive too. Mostly, your personal brevet times and sleep habits should determine your optimal start time. Be sure and give yourself some cushion so that you can finish despite a "worse-case" scenario; don't cut things too close in terms of overall riding time since things don't always go according to plan. Some rriders think that the extra sleep before the 84-hour start is worth six hours less riding time. But other 84-hour riders say getting up at 3am for the 5am start didn't allow for a good night's sleep, especially with pre-ride jitters in an unfamiliar hotel room. They should have taken the 90-hour start and used the time cushion to get some rest along the route.
If the thought of departing on a 1200k jaunt across France at the awful hour of 22:00 seems unbearable, remember that in 1931 the very first randonneurs in the inaugural ACP Paris-Brest-Paris left Paris at the same time. If they did it, so can we.